Sen. Jeff Flake announced on Tuesday that he is leaving the Senate. But his speech was an indictment of modern politics at large.
The Arizona Republican took to the Senate floor to decry the state of political discourse, the leadership of President Donald Trump and the future of conservatism.
“It is clear, at this moment, that a traditional conservative who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, and who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican Party,” Flake said.
His retirement plans — and what he said on the Senate floor — raised deep questions about the state of the GOP and also shakes up a hotly contested Senate race.
Flake Gives Anti-Trump Speech on Senate Floor
Some Republicans said Flake’s re-election woes were a product of his own issues in the state, while others said he had a point.
“I think today, the definition of being a conservative, it’s not any of those things [Flake mentioned],” said one GOP consultant in Arizona. “It’s how much or how little you support the president.”
Flake had been a consistent critic of Trump even before his election last fall, pushing back on his call to ban Muslims from entering the country, his criticisms of free trade and his plan to end a program protecting undocumented immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children from deportation.
“The notion that one should say and do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavior is ahistoric and, I believe, profoundly misguided,” Flake said Tuesday.
But it was that kind of criticism that drew a primary challenge to the first-term senator from former state Sen. Kelli Ward. Erstwhile Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon has backed Ward in his broader attempt to go after Republicans whom he says do not support the president.
“Probably one of the big miscalculations Jeff made was his failure to recognize how popular the president is with primary voters,” one GOP strategist said.
The strategist noted that Flake’s decision was not necessarily a surprise, with chatter over the past month that he would step down. Some strategists agreed Flake could still win a primary against Ward, but his path to victory in the general election was not clear, since Trump supporters would likely not turn out to support him.
Though Flake criticized the president’s words and actions, he was still a staunch conservative, according to groups such as the Club for Growth that rate lawmakers’ conservative credentials based on congressional votes.
“Senator Flake maintained a lifetime average of 96 percent on Club for Growth’s scorecard — a distinction few have earned,” club President David McIntosh said. “A tried and true fiscal conservative, Jeff fought to eliminate earmarks before it was cool.”
Some Arizona Republicans said Flake had not maintained the same reputation in Arizona, with his conservative bona fides eroding as he pushed for an immigration overhaul and more open relations with Cuba.
“Part of the problem with this was that Jeff never really had a great connection with Arizona voters to begin with,” an Arizona GOP consultant said. “And when the president of your own party is taking you on, it’s not the best place to be.”
“What [Flake] couldn’t do is be both, pick a fight with the president and be perceived as being weak on the issues,” another strategist said.
Watch: More and More Republicans Speaking Out Against Trump’s Politics
Changing Senate race
With Flake out of the race, strategists predict a more traditional primary than the bitter intraparty battle that would have been ahead.
Some noted that Ward’s central argument was that Flake was not conservative enough — an argument that becomes tougher to make against others who could jump in.
Ward indicated she will continue to run as the pro-Trump candidate.
“Arizona voters are the big winner in Jeff Flake’s decision to not seek re-election,” she said. “They deserve a strong conservative in the U.S. Senate who supports President Trump and the ‘America First’ agenda.”
But other potential Republican candidates could also point to their support of the president.
The top names emerging include Reps. Martha McSally and David Schweikert, and the state’s attorney general, Mark Brnovich. Rep. Andy Biggs and former Rep. Matt Salmon were also named as potential candidates.
One strategist said other names to watch include state Sen. Steve Montenegro, who is currently running for secretary of state; Arizona Board of Regents member Jay Heiler; Len Munsil, the president of Arizona Christian University who previously ran for governor; and Christine Jones, who narrowly lost to Biggs in a 2016 House primary race.
Others noted that Rep. Paul Gosar has signaled interest in running. But his recent statements — including his assertion that violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August was part of a liberal conspiracy — could limit his GOP support.
“With the exception of McSally, they’re all very, very conservative but … they’re not insurgents,” one Arizona strategist said. “They’re not running with the expressed goal of tearing down the Republican Party.”
Some strategists noted that McSally’s moderate reputation, garnered from representing a swing district based in Tucson, could hurt her in a statewide Republican primary. But one consultant suggested she could clear the GOP field, thanks in part to her fundraising prowess.
Before Flake bowed out, Trump supporters had reportedly been eyeing state Treasurer Jeff DeWit as a potential primary challenger. DeWit served as chief operating officer for Trump’s presidential campaign.
Former state party chairman Robert Graham was also named as a potential primary challenger. He told Roll Call on Tuesday night that he is planning to travel to D.C. soon to discuss the possibility of running.
Graham, who met with Trump in August at a rally in Phoenix, said he has an agreement with DeWit that if one of them runs, the other won’t.
Some strategists doubted those considering a primary challenge would jump in now that Flake was out, since they could no longer zero in on the incumbent.
“Had they had said ‘yes’ a month ago — heck, a week ago — they would have gotten in essentially with the president’s full support,” said Arizona consultant Constantin Querard, who has been critical of Flake. “Now there’s really no reason for the president to get involved. … It’s now just an open Senate seat. It’s kind of politics as usual.”
It is not immediately clear how the shakeup could affect the Democrat in the race, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema. Some Republicans were hopeful Flake’s exit could mean a stronger candidate would face Sinema.
“We’ve been able to outsmart Democrats in the past election cycles,” Graham said. “Sinema’s a real threat. Anyone who suggests she’s not is crazy.”
“This was always going to be a competitive seat. It is going to be a competitive seat,” said Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “We have an excellent chance of winning the Arizona seat.”
Joe Williams and Eric Garcia contributed to this report.